Dr. K: Physician-Assisted Suicide & the Death Penalty
Liana R. Prieto (November 1997)
We are faced with a case involving two morally disputed issues that involve life and death. Questions will arise as to the morality of physician-assisted suicide, and though I will address them, they are essentially irrelevant in this case because it is presently illegal. The morality of the death penalty will also be called into question and I will establish that it the just and necessary punishment in this instance. Dr. K, in assisting a patient to commit suicide, has violated the law of this state and should be put to death.
In theory, physician-assisted suicide would bring about an end to the suffering of terminally ill patients who do not want to spend their last days in agony. Physician-assisted suicide was legalized on the assumption that this theory would prove true because there was no prior evidence on which to base the decision. A person's right to refuse life-saving treatment is affirmed by the 14th Amendment, which says that no citizen can be deprived of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law". (Rehnquist, 162) This idea is based on the principle of autonomy in our society. Since this principle is accepted in cases involving the removal of life-support it can also be seen to apply to physician-assisted suicide in which a competent person takes a lethal dose of medicine. The principle grants individuals to do with their lives as they please as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. Another justification for physician-assisted suicide is compassion. If our goal is to reduce suffering only it is better to end a terminally ill patients' life quickly than to let them die slowly without treatment. ((Rachels, 172) These two arguments led to the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.
Sadly, in practice, it has led to murder in the form of involuntary euthanasia. Many of the arguments against physician-assisted suicide have now proven true. It was feared that the sanctity of life would be lost if life were defined as simply a "physiological condition or function". (Stevens, 165) The loss of the distinction between the refusal of treatment and physician-assisted suicide has led to the loss of the concept of the sanctity of life and , thereby, the practice of euthanasia. "The relief of suffering, which is surely a time-honored role for the physician, does not extend to an act that presupposes that the life of a patient who is suffering is not worthy to be lived." (Dyck, 171) However, this is just the idea that became prevalent after the legalization of physician-assisted suicide and allowed physicians to make themselves into judges and executioners in the cases of their patients.
The utilitarian principle of minimizing suffering was a convincing argument for accepting physician-assisted suicide but we have now seen that suffering actually increased. Since the legalization there have been numerous instances of terminally ill patients being coerced into suicide and of involuntary euthanasia. Both of these cases are, at their bases, murder. These victims and their families suffer as much as terminally ill patients. Imagine the constant fear a terminally ill person who wants to live to their last day will feel knowing that when their physician judges them unworthy of life they may give them a lethal dose of medication without their knowledge. Involuntary euthanasia of terminally ill patients was only the first horrible consequence of legalized physician-assisted suicide. If the practice had been allowed to continue it might be only a short time before others deemed unworthy of life, such as the elderly and handicapped, were euthanized at the will of physicians.
The concept of an autonomous individual who can dispose of his life as he sees fit was a powerful argument for physician-assisted suicide. Its' legalization was simply an extension of an autonomy enjoyed in other aspects of life. However, it led to physicians having a grotesque power over their patients that canceled out the autonomy of the patient. The many unfortunate consequences of legalized physician-assisted suicide are what led to its being outlawed. Now we must decide what is to be done when this law is violated.
Dr. K has been convicted and some punishment must be administered; the options are imprisonment or the death penalty. In this case capital punishment is morally justified and is the only proper course of action. Dr. K deserves the death penalty for having a hand in the death of another person and blatantly disobeying a law enacted for the good of society. The retributivist view based on desert alone justifies Dr. K's execution. (Glover, 384) Dr. K violated the ban on physician-assisted suicide, which was drafted to protect the vulnerable, making physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia live options. A severe punishment will demonstrate to any others who were considering physician-assisted suicide that the practice is unacceptable. Therefore by the utilitarian principle of minimizing the amount of life lost capital punishment is justified. (Mill, 66)
The death penalty is also justified because it will serve to maintain law and order in our society. Dr. K was aware that he was acting in violation of the law. He is also aware that physician-assisted suicide is legal in other states. Instead of acting illegally and facing the penalty of doing so he could have gone elsewhere. In the Crito Plato presents the idea that "if he does not like us when...he has seen the ways of the city...he may go where he pleases and take his goods with him; and none of us laws will forbid him or interfere with him." By remaining in this state Dr. K. "entered into an implied contract" requiring him to act within the parameters et by society. (Plato, 355) The breaking of this contract must not be permitted and Dr. K.'s actions must be met with the severest punishment. He must be punished in a way that makes other adhere to this contract or we jeopardize our entire way of life. "In part capital punishment is an expression of society's moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct. This function may be unappealing to many, but it is essential in an ordered society that asks it citizens to rely on legal processes." (Stewart, 379)
Objections will be raised by those who feel that the death penalty is unjustified for various reasons. It has been argued that since the death penalty has not been proven to be a greater deterrent than imprisonment it should not be used. (Glover, 389) In the majority opinion on Gregg v. Georgia, Justices Stewart, Powell and Stevens concede that the death penalty has not yet been proven to be a greater deterrent, but that there are "carefully contemplated murders... where the possible penalty of death may well enter into the cold calculations that precedes the decision to act". (379) Physician-assisted suicide is one such case. A physician must carefully consider many factors before helping a patient to die and if the threat of their own death is included in these considerations, it is unlikely that they will go through with it.
The death penalty is condemned as 'cruel and unusual' and as "judicial murder" by some. Absolutists completely reject some kinds of punishment because they cause too much suffering. They argue that though the punishment may have beneficial consequences they are unimportant. (Glover, 385-6) It is impossible for everyone in society to come to an agreement as to how much suffering to too much. The second flaw of the absolutist view is that "punishment is inflicting harm" first and foremost and if the criminal does not suffer the punishment does not accomplish its purpose. (Perlmutter, 391)
Dr. K. feels that suicide is not morally wrong and therefore the government is wrong in making it illegal. Those who agree with him can argue that he disobeyed the law with the hope of changing it and therefore the death penalty is too severe. "We have a responsibility toward those who disobey the draft laws out of conscience, and...we may be required not to prosecute them, but rather change our laws or adjust our sentencing procedures to accommodate them." (Dworkin, 371) This argument is strong when presented by Dworkin in cases of civil disobedience, but it is invalidated in cases of life and death. The state has a duty to protect its citizens and will be doing so by executing Dr. K.
If physician-assisted suicide had worked in practice as it seemed it would we would not be faced with our current dilemma. Consequentialist fears can be disregarded before the fact but the reality of physicians committing murder using the law as their justification could not be overlooked. The sad results of legalized physician-assisted suicide were shocking and repulsive to society and it was once again made illegal. Dr. K has shown no respect for law or human life by continuing the practice. It is morally permissible to sentence Dr. K. to death. The loss of life is always unfortunate but in this case it is necessary to prevent widespread legalized murder.